Samsung started the smartwatch push in earnest with its over-the-top Galaxy Gear just last year. Now, some six smartwatches later, Samsung is releasing one that can make its own calls. The Gear S is a tiny phone on your wrist. But is that really a good idea?
What Is It?
A watch with its very own internet connection. A way to get notifications on your wrist even if you're away from your phone. A big ol' curved-screen band running Samsung's Tizen operating system and for use exclusively with Samsung phones. A smartwatch that costs somewhere between $350 and $400, and requires a tablet data plan to function properly. A wrist-phone for Dick Tracy wannabes.
Big and curved. The Gear S is the biggest smartwatch I've ever seen (besides the Neptune Pine, the existence of which I otherwise refuse to acknowledge), and definitely the biggest I've ever worn for any amount of time. Its 2-inch 360 x 480 curved AMOLED screen looks gigantic on my arm. There's a reason for that; you're supposed to be able to peck out a text message or even an email on the two-inch touchscreen. Still, it's hard to get over the girth. I am not daintily wristed, but it still sits like a black, curved monolith on my arm. Did I mention that it's thick, too?
The whole device is curved, not just the screen, and you can really see it if you pop the business end of the Gear S out of its rubber strap. On the backside is where you'll find a small mic and speaker for when you try to make actual voice calls on the gizmo, as well as the heart rate monitor, and of course the charging pins because—like every other Gear watch—the S snaps into a specialized little cradle to charge.
With a rectangular face and physical home button at the bottom edge, it looks like a little tiny smartphone, but not quite a pretty one. There's none of the Galaxy Alpha's sleek silvery charm here. It's not too horrible if you've got a good sleeve to help camouflage it a little bit.
But when it's just on a naked wrist, ugh.
The problem isn't exactly that it's horribly or lazily designed. The curved glass is eye-catching and the style is at least consistent across the device. It doesn't look cheap like the original Pebble. I just feel like I'm wearing a Star Trek prop, or some piece of misguided late-90s futurism that Samsung found in a buried time capsule and decided to pass off as the future. It looks out of place, constantly.
I've had a couple of strangers ask me about it—cashiers mostly—but instead of swelling with nerd-pride, I just get sheepish. When the guy behind the counter goes "cool watch" it's all I can do to not raise my eyebrows at him. Are you making fun of me, dude?
Though the Gear S has its very own phone number, you do still need a phone. It just doesn't need to be in the same room. The watch works by pairing with your Samsung phone over the watch's data connection, or, if you're within range, Bluetooth. By default it will pair by Bluetooth, and then flip over to mobile data if the connection gets broken. But either way, you're using the watch to control your phone, not playing with a discrete wrist-computer.
Which means, if you set up automatic call forwarding, you can call your friends from your wrist and the call will appear to come from your regular phone number. But if you mistakenly share the direct phone number with your coworkers like I did, then all bets are off and your wrist is ringing at midnight. Protip: don't do that.
Let's get this out of the way: Making phone calls on your wrist sucks. The Gear's speaker isn't very loud, so if you want to talk on the thing, you'll have to alternate between holding it up to your ear and holding it up to your mouth. It's obnoxious and obnoxious-looking and I don't recommend it unless you are in danger of dying from something other than embarrassment. Also it made my arm surprisingly tired. Try holding your arm horizontally in front of your face for a minute, I'll wait. See? I imagine it's better if you have a Bluetooth headset, but that kind of defeats the point of the whole wrist-phone thing.
Alternatively, if you're on the go and don't have your phone, you can text from the Gear S. It's got a messaging app built right in, complete with a heavily auto-correcting keyboard that I found to be aggressively right more often than it was aggressively wrong—but not without its share of insanity. I tried for "difficult" and got "gingivitis." Slowing down helps a little, but doesn't make things perfect. Even with the Gear S's massive (for a watch) screen, there's hardly any room to chicken peck precisely. At some point you're going to get tired of trying to type "on" and getting corrected to "in" for the umpteenth time.
You can also browse the internet on this thing via the Opera Browser app in Samsung's Gear app store. I don't recommend it.
Mostly though, attempting to try out the Gear S without my phone in range highlighted to me how infrequently I go without my phone and how utterly naked I feel when I do. There was very rarely a "natural" time to try and test out the Gear S's connectivity features. I had to purposefully tear myself away from my phone.
One of the few times I did, the Gear S did come in sort of handy. I was out skateboarding—I never bring my phone for fear of falling and destroying it—and my fiancee texted to ask if I could forward her an email I was supposed to have forwarded her that morning. Thanks to the Gear S, I knew about this ~20 minutes earlier than I otherwise would have, but there was nothing I could do about it. I had no phone to pull out, and the Gear S's emailing abilities are limited to rudimentary replies; you can't even start a new thread, much less forward something. The only thing the Gear S helped me with was feeling a little forgetful and ashamed on the ride home.
I wear a smartwatch pretty much all the time, and what I've found is that it serves one main job: Letting me know whether or not it's worth taking my phone out of my pocket. That's a question that can be answered with a glance and a tidbit of information. When my phone isn't in my pocket, a watch can't do that job at all.
LG G Watch R, Gear S, Moto 360
Of course there are plenty of other situations where the Gear S might have actually come in handy: If it alerted me to a problem I could solve with a text or a call. Still, I would have waited until I had a phone in hand. Talking and typing on the Gear S are both functionally possible, but annoying enough that I want to avoid them. So instead, the smartwatch question becomes Is this a thing I can or am willing to do on a watch? And the answer is pretty much always no. How often do I really need to be readily accessible and quick to respond, but also away from my phone? Basically never.
So forgetting about Dick Tracy and his cellular data for a sec, is the Gear S any good as a standard smartwatch for standard glanceable notifications? It's decent. Swiping around the Gear S isn't what I'd call snappy, but it's not sluggish. The screen is nice and colorful, but it throws off an insane amount of glare. Gmail notifications are a bit of a nightmare, because new emails get bundled into combo notifications if you get too many at once. Even a single, long subject line can be hard to distinguish from who sent it.
Who wants to see "You have X Gmail notifications" followed by a completely non-delineated and nigh indecipherable jumble of sender names and subjects? You can solve this by dismissing your notifications instead of letting them stack up, and other notifications come through fine, but if you live and breathe Gmail it might be a problem. You can also control your music with the Gear S, even store music on it and use it as a tiny MP3 player, but that's nothing special.
The upside of Tizen, compared to Android Wear smartwatches, is that the Gear S has great battery life. A full day is easy, even with ludicrous amounts of use and the data connection turned on the whole time. When I was trying to burn down the Gear S battery as fast as I could, I could only get it down to 30 percent over the course of 16-some hours. With more sparing use (and the watch set to only use mobile data when it wasn't connected to Bluetooth) I was able to go two full days without so much as a low battery alert, and that included a night of sleep tracking. This is some of the best battery life I've seen on a smartwatch, outside of the Pebble.
It also has the requisite fitness stuff. It functions as a pedometer that hooks into Samsung's S Fit app. It's got a heart rate monitor that's pretty unreliable just like most smartwatch heart rate monitors. It can track sleep which is pretty cool, especially considering it has the battery to last a night without a charge, but it's also so big and bulky that wearing it to bed feels ridiculous.
Nutzo battery life. The Gear S's 300 mAh battery isn't even big by smartwatch standards and still I was able to get a whole two days out of it in one stretch, and on the night in-between I was even using it for sleep tracking. This should be the baseline for smartwatches, period.
Ugh, it's so big and ugly and unhip. It's vitally important to be able to wear a smartwatch without being uncomfortable, physically or mentally. Wearing the Gear S made me uncomfortable in both ways. When I wore it for sleep tracking, it kept feeling like it was getting caught on parts of my bed, and I just really, really don't like how it looks.
It only works with Samsung phones.
Wrist phone calls are just the worst. Your arm gets tired, and the Gear S's speakers aren't quite loud enough to be useful in an environment that isn't quiet. Moving your wrist from mouth to ear to mouth to ear and saying "what?" a lot is about as fun as it is futuristic.
If you want full functionality, you need to buy a data plan. On most carriers, you're going to pay a pretty penny. We're talking a bare minimum of like $5 a month or at least $60 a year to use this watch. Unless your carrier treats it like a tablet— in which case expect to pay double.
Should You Buy It
No. There's a lot you could potentially do with a watch that has its own data connection, but the Gear S doesn't do those things. And the Gear S is big and ugly in order to shove in that limited functionality. The trade-off just isn't worth it. Connectivity should be a bonus feature, not something you hang your hat on.
If you are a normal person—not some crazy businessman who needs to respond to emails instantly on a jog or something—the features that the Gear S sacrifices style and size to gain just aren't going to come in handy that often. And that's without even considering the price of a data plan, which shouldn't cost anywhere near as much as carriers are charging. That, and the Gear S is expensive to start with. It varies by carrier but you won't find it cheaper than $300.
Connectivity might eventually come to smartwatches on a wider scale, and it could be handy when it finally does. But for now the tech is too bulky, the plans are too expensive, and the benefits are too few. Turns out being Dick Tracy is overrated.